Photo: Yvette d’Entremont

The Halifax Examiner is providing all COVID-19 coverage for free.

Maryanne Fisher wants to know how our relationships with food have changed as a result of pandemic restrictions that have left most of us housebound.

The Saint Mary’s University psychology professor is renowned for her research into human relationships. She has joined researchers from more than 30 countries to learn more about our food-related pandemic purchases and habits through a thought-provoking, Belgium-based global Coronavirus Cooking Survey

The research survey is intended to examine the impact COVID-19 has had on our cooking, eating, and media behaviour. 

“This is a fun thing to do. Just sit down one night and invest the time. How often do we get to answer questions about how often we sit down with our family to eat? It makes you think about it,” Fisher said in an interview.

“How often do we get to think about what sort of foods we were preparing versus what we’re doing now? I think it gives us pause, it makes you think about some of the things you wouldn’t normally address.”

A new survey from Dalhousie University in partnership with Angus Reid examined the experiences of Canadians and their grocery shopping habits in the midst of COVID-19. According to the survey, 47% of Canadians indicated their intention to cook more when the pandemic is over. 

From yeast and flour to frozen pizza, a coronavirus-confined population is yearning for comfort food as they spend more time in their kitchens. Fisher said while researchers currently have a good idea about how people shop, prepare, and eat their food, they don’t know how these things change when there are pressures.

“What happens if you can’t get the things you want for your recipe, or you can’t go to the restaurant that you’ve always gone to to sustain yourself? Then what do you actually do if you have to use cooking skills and you don’t have any,” she asked. 

Maryanne Fisher. Photo: Saint Mary’s University

“This will really help inform us about how flexible people are. How do people react to change, how do they adapt? That’s one area that we’re really curious about.”

The second aspect researchers are hoping to learn more about is recipes and knowledge transfer. 

“Why is it that your great grandmother wrote down her recipes and gave them to members of her family before she passed away? It’s because it’s important knowledge and we use those sources of information during times of distress,” Fisher said.

“We may not think about them even until we’re distressed, so it’s a source of comfort. After this pandemic is over I think having some sort of understanding of that value will be really critical, and I think that’s what the results are ultimately going to point to is that we can be flexible and adapt but also that there is value in learning how to cook and learning how to prepare food and learning how to even shop.”

Researchers want to examine how people were and are shopping, preparing, or eating their food and how their choices are influenced by friends, family members, celebrity chefs, or other so-called media influencers.

“How do you prepare your food or eat your food because of these people? I think that’s why people are making bread and why we see these shortages of flour and yeast,” she said. “We’ve taken these things for granted for so long, but now it’s the hottest commodity out there.”

The survey’s content is identical for each country, although languages will vary. It was launched here on April 26, with many of the questions asking participants to consider their behaviours before and after they were confined to their homes. 

So far about 300 Canadians have fully completed it. While Fisher is happy with those numbers, they’re a drop in the bucket compared to the 6,000 Belgians who completed it within two weeks of the survey going live. That number has since swelled to 9,000.

“Belgians are foodies to begin with…Participants were so enthralled with the work they contacted the researchers and asked can you please put out a weekly survey for us to do,” Fisher said. 

“They created a weekly survey and it’s become a legitimate thing now in Belgium to do. They put out press releases with very quick findings at the end of each week and it’s absolutely amazing.”

The survey takes between 15 and 20 minutes to complete, but despite its length researchers tried to make it engaging, interesting and relevant. The scope of the survey meant they needed to be thorough and ensure the questions were relevant internationally.

“What might be applicable here in eastern Canada is not necessarily applicable, say, in South Africa or Uganda,” she said.

Although it’s still early, she said a quick overview of the Canadian responses so far suggests that many people seem to be feeling a sense of loss. 

“They like to eat out, they like to be able to have other people prepare their food or they feel stressed about having to prepare so much of their own food,” Fisher said. “I think this is why we see frozen pizzas for example running off of shelves or pizza joints saying they’re having a hard time keeping up with demand.”

Despite the novelty associated with cooking on your own, learning new recipes, baking bread and completing other food-related tasks, having no choice but to do it day in and day out has left “a lot of people” feeling stressed and sad. 

“There’s a time investment as well and a dedication to it, and that’s one that really popped out when I looked at the data,” she said. “I do sense that people are drinking more than average in terms of the alcohol questions, but that would be just a general sense of what I was seeing there.” 

Another interesting shift Fisher has noticed is that half the participants indicated that prior to COVID-19 restrictions, they sat down to have meals with the members of their household. 

“They answered sometimes, frequently, or very frequently…Now it has gone up during lockdown,” she said. “It’s overwhelmingly in favour of frequently, very frequently, or all the time. So there is definitely a shift.” 

Fisher is also fascinated by the fact that survey responses suggest many people are enjoying virtual drinking nights with their friends during this pandemic period, but no one seems to be organizing online dinner parties on a similar scale. 

In addition to it being fun and serving a useful research purpose, Fisher encourages people to participate in the survey because for each one completed, funds are donated to the Global FoodBanking Network. She estimates that about $10,000 has been raised overall so far.

“We’re dealing with people and their relationship with food, but we’re also talking about people who may not have money for food. We’re not excluding people who are using food banks right now,” she said. 

“We’re hoping to include people who just have a hard time making a decision about paying rent or buying food, and this really got us thinking about the necessity to support companies and organizations that are trying to give back to the community by supplying food and eliminating hunger.”

The Halifax Examiner is an advertising-free, subscriber-supported news site. Your subscription makes this work possible; please subscribe.

Some people have asked that we additionally allow for one-time donations from readers, so we’ve created that opportunity, via the PayPal button below. We also accept e-transfers, cheques, and donations with your credit card; please contact iris “at” halifaxexaminer “dot” ca for details.

Thank you!

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

Leave a comment

Only subscribers to the Halifax Examiner may comment on articles. We moderate all comments. Be respectful; whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims. Please read our Commenting Policy.